Elizabeth Peyton was born in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1965. She earned her BFA in 1987 from the School of Visual Arts in New York. In the early 1990s Peyton began exhibiting her portraits in alternative, unofficial locales, such as the Chelsea Hotel in New York in 1993 and the Prince Albert Pub in London in 1995. From her earliest exhibitions, Peyton's works polarized opinion in an art world that largely judged contemporary figurative pieces as irrelevant or passé. However, she was at the forefront of a reevaluation of figurative work and has exhibited regularly since 1995.

Peyton treats the subjects of her portraits with a distinctive intimacy, whether they are friends, historical icons, or famous musicians. Her ever-expanding repertoire of recurring subjects includes Kurt Cobain, Andy Warhol, Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth II, Piotr Uklanski, and David Hockney, among many others. She paints from both life and from varied source material like found photographs, film stills, famous paintings, or mass media images. Her portraits, lovingly created with gestural brushstrokes of diluted oil paint, investigate how art and mass media affect the viewer's emotional and intellectual response to the person depicted.

Peyton has exhibited regularly at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York since 1995, at Neugerriemschneider Kunstgalerie in Berlin since 1996, and at Sadie Coles HQ in London since 1998. Solo museum exhibitions of Peyton's work have been organized by Saint Louis Art Museum (1997–98), Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel (1998), and New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (2008). Her work has also been included in major exhibition such as SITE Santa Fe (1997), Whitney Biennial (2004), and Drawings from the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2005). In 2006, she was honored with the Larry Aldrich Award. Peyton lives and works in New York and Berlin.